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A first-generation college student: Laura Lundelius

July 30, 2018

“I’m a First-Gen College Student” will bring together first-generation students, faculty, staff and recent alumni with Welcome Events from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

To help launch the program, we’re telling just some of the many first-generation stories here at NIU.

Laura Lundelius

Laura Lundelius

Despite being told college was a waste of time and money, Laura Lundelius set out to prove her independence.

Her mother hadn’t finished high school.

“My mother always told me, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,'” said Lundelius, the director of Campus Services at NIU. “I saw my mom dependent on people, and I didn’t want to be like that. That’s what really pushed me.”

Her mother died last year, but not before seeing her daughter earn a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Human Resource Management in 2001 from Mary Baldwin College in Virginia and a Master of Business Administration from NIU in 2005.

Starting as a cashier for Parking Services 17 years ago at NIU, Lundelius worked her way up to her current position, which she’s held for the past six years. She now oversees Parking Services, along with Materials Management and Transportation, and was honored in 2017 with a Presidential Supportive Staff Award for Excellence.

“It wasn’t until I finally graduated from college and I was working at NIU that my mother really saw what a benefit education was,” Lundelius said. “When I got my master’s degree, she was elated. She had a real change of heart.”

The first in her family to go to college, Lundelius worked full-time in retail and manufacturing after high school and went to classes when she could. She started taking community college classes at Triton College in River Grove at age 18 and later at Elgin Community College, before moving to Virgina with her husband, Scott, and eventually enrolling in Mary Baldwin College at age 33.

“It was a slow process,” she said. “I’m a perfect example of how to do it the hard way.”

Upon enrolling at Mary Baldwin, Lundelius knew she wanted to be on a college campus. “It feels like home to me,” she said.

Thanks to the support of her husband, she said she was able to go to school full-time for the first time.

“That was probably my best college experience ever,” she said. “I was able to focus on schoolwork, and I had a lot of support on campus from teachers and the dean and my advisor. They just made me feel really at home.”

She remembers a humanities class focused on different religions. As part of the class, students had to perform 12 hours of community service outside the classroom with a nonprofit organization.

“I was the only one who requested to work with animals and not people, which my professor was surprised. No one had ever asked her that before. She allowed it,” remembered Lundelius, whose office is decorated with a poster-size picture of her dog, Marshall, who often comes with her to work for the day.

Students made a diary of their daily experiences and submitted them.

“My professor was actually moved by my experience working with injured animals at a wildlife sanctuary that she was very willing to allow other students to volunteer at similar organizations,” she said. “She made me feel like I taught her something new, as much as she taught me new things.”

She’d advise anyone considering college to find a support system.

Seek out classmates, friends, faculty, staff, advisors, anyone able to help, she said.

“Other people are going to be experiencing the same thing,” she said. “You shouldn’t be afraid to reach out because it’s important to have that support.”

Back in high school, Lundelius remembers being known as among the “average.” Her mother was a nursing assistant, while her father worked as an electrician after serving in the U.S. Air Force.

“Advisors seemed to focus on the top-tier students, which were wonderful people, very smart kids, but they didn’t really focus on us,” she said. “You know, I think that’s a real bummer. I hope they’ve changed because they should be encouraging all of the kids or at least showing them the benefits of college or going into the trades.”

Lundelius thought she’d be a nurse before she discovered her love of business and the university atmosphere.

It wasn’t easy getting where she is today. Upon earning her bachelor’s degree, she said she interviewed for eight different jobs and was told she was “overqualified.” She vowed to take the first job offer she received. It came from NIU.

“I’ve been on the honor roll, and I’ve been on academic probation,” she said. “Don’t let things get you down. Stay focused on the end goal. As hard as it might seem, stick with it and finish your bachelor’s degree. If you can, start on your master’s degree right afterwards. You’ll be glad you did it when you’re all done.”

Enjoy food, music and giveaways and hear stories about the personal experiences of those who were the first in their families to attend four-year colleges at Welcome Events on Sept. 4 and 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

Learn about the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

Are you a first-generation faculty or staff member? Drop in to a Welcome Event and take home a laminated “I am a first gen college graduate” door decoration to put in your office. Let first-generation college students know they’re not alone and support is available.